News & Politics

What I've Learned: "Remember that You're Onstage"

An Etiquette expert on dressing professionally, using social media , and nailing a job interview. Her top tip? Put away that cell phone.

“We need to show respect to other people to receive respect,” says Pamela Eyring. Photograph by Kevin Koski.

Pamela Eyring didn’t plan to become an etiquette expert.

After high school, she took a job as a clerk stenographer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up. “I needed to get a job,” she says. “My mother was raising me as a single mother, and I was eager to work.”

She ended up staying 23 years–going to college at night and working her way up, eventually becoming chief of protocol. In that position, she planned events for international visitors, organized official dinners, and oversaw parades, military award functions, and other ceremonies.

But she never had formal training. “I learned by scar tissue,” she says. “You make a mistake and you embarrass yourself or your command or your community. I didn’t want others to go through that.”

Eventually she heard about the Protocol School of Washington. Founded in 1988, it offered a weeklong program in corporate etiquette and international protocol. The course was designed to train the trainers so they could go back to their workplaces and teach their colleagues. Eyring signed up and came to Washington, then, when she returned to Dayton, began offering the school’s copyrighted classes to her staff and coworkers at Wright-Patterson. “I loved helping people learn,” she says. When the school’s founder, Dorothea Johnson, decided to sell it in 2005, Eyring seized the opportunity.

Today people come from all over to take classes at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner. The school also offers on-site seminars and in 2009 began courses in Dubai. Students have come from such organizations as the FBI, Boeing, Forbes, and George Washington University. They learn about everything from business entertaining to cubicle etiquette to how to give an effective presentation.

At the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Eyring sat down to talk about how the American workplace is changing–and how employees can make themselves stand out.

What’s the difference between protocol and etiquette?

I think of protocol as the science. It’s the rules that society puts on us–or we put on ourselves–so that there’s not chaos.

Etiquette is the art of knowing those rules and putting them into practice. You can’t have one without the other. But strength overdone can become a weakness. So if you have too much protocol–rules, rules, rules–you’re not going to build relationships. We’re teaching both.

Has the workplace gotten ruder?

I think in many ways we really have stepped backwards as a society. We’re very individualistic, and we’re also becoming one of the most casual nations in the world. We’re losing our people skills. We’re losing relationships, and we’re probably losing prospects and clients.

I think we’re getting tired of the rudeness and incivilities in the workplace–people cutting their toenails in the cube next to you. Believe it. I’ve been hired to come fix that.

We get comfortable in our environment, and we forget that what we do at home is different from what we do at work. If you want to eat with your elbows on the table at home, go for it. I love holding my pizza when I eat it. But that’s casual. When we’re at work, we’re onstage. We need to show respect to other people to receive respect. You earn respect the old-fashioned way, not because you have a fancy title in Washington. It’s because of how you portray yourself as a professional.

What’s the biggest problem you see?

Electronic communication. We have these devices at our fingertips, so it’s easy to send an e-mail and hide behind a laptop screen.

People are taking their cell phones into meetings and texting while the boss is speaking. Or they’re leaving their cell phones on their desks in ring mode and they go to a meeting and the phones are ringing and ringing and ringing. They’re putting them on the dinner table–it’s a distraction for everyone.

The worst: People will hear their phone vibrate while they’re having a conversation and they’ll look at their phone and they’ll text. They try to multitask. We’re addicted to it.

What are the etiquette rules when it comes to technology?

You should keep your phone on vibrate. And do not take it into a meeting. If you do, don’t put it on the table, because when it vibrates it makes noise.

Aside from technology, what are the most common etiquette mistakes people make in the workplace?

One of the worst is business attire. Men don’t have as many problems because they don’t have a plethora of fashion choices. They have a uniform. Their biggest mistakes are unpolished, scuffed shoes and wrinkled clothes. I tell men to remember that people judge you by your shoes and your watch.

A lot of people–both men and women–do not tailor their clothes. You’ll see jackets that were bought off the shelf and that come down to the knuckles.

For women, it’s harder. It’s having no makeup. Makeup makes a woman look more friendly. You don’t need nighttime makeup but just a little bit to make you look more approachable.

The worst is sexiness in the office. I am very happy to see that some retailers are bringing in the Mad Men flavor of fashion, with beautiful dresses for women. Still stylish, a little fashion-forward, but not over the edge. And they’re not showing a lot of cleavage or too much skin.

What guidelines would you give a woman shopping for work clothes?

As women, we gain weight, we lose weight. If we don’t change our clothes to fit the gain or the loss, then we look a mess. We don’t look professional. Physically, your clothes need to fit you–that’s the number-one tip.

I don’t like looking at women’s breasts–and sometimes we don’t realize that designers are cutting shirts so low. When we look in a mirror, we’re fine. But the minute you lean over or if someone is looking down at your desk and you’re looking up, they can see everything.

I look at men at a law firm or in the government and what do they wear? Suits and ties, suits and ties. It helps them blend in. I’m not saying women should dress like men, but they should dress professionally. You’ll be treated differently. When women dress too casually or too fashion-forward, they don’t get the same respect–from men or women.

When does it make sense to write a handwritten thank-you note, and when is it okay to send an e-mail?

If you had lunch with a colleague you hadn’t seen in a while and had a great time, sending an e-mail is fine. But if you’re invited to your boss’s home or you asked a mentor for advice–something out of the ordinary–a written note is appropriate.

We’re getting hundreds of e-mails a day. If you write a thank-you e-mail, they are going to open it, think, “Oh, that’s nice,” and delete it. A note on nice stationery stands out. It can be short. Just make sure to spell everything correctly and write neatly.